The Future of Energy: Asteroid Mining & Space-Based Solar To Allow Wildlife to Reclaim Habitat?
Written by Kyle Walters, Spring 2022 Legal Issues with Energy Development & Wildlife student under Carol Frampton at Michigan State University College of Law
Land: “They're not making it anymore.” Exemplified in a game of Monopoly, the monopolistic nature of land is demonstrated by the orange and red properties, which are best due to their proximity to jail and the probability of rolling a seven. Whether scarcity is in terms of the total or in terms of proximity, when it comes to land there is only a finite amount available and as we all know, “location, location, location,” is everything. As the world progresses, there is an ever-growing demand for resources and energy. Presently this demand can be met in a variety of ways, but how long can this be sustained? Advancements in asteroid mining and space-based solar power are making the possibility of developing a completely sustainable means of supplying the earth’s resource and energy needs a reality. By transferring all of earth's mining and energy development into outer space, hundreds of millions of acres of land could be reclaimed by wildlife and subsequently designated as protected habitat, but is the risk worth the reward?
Currently, in the United States alone, 71,000,000 acres of land are dedicated to the production of energy. This land is used in the production of liquid biofuels, hydropower, solar and wind energy, oil and gas, coal, and nuclear power. An additional 1.3 million surface acres of United States federal lands are occupied by private mining operations. In the United States, oil and gas development alone has resulted in the loss or degradation of nearly 5 million acres of wildlife habitat. These figures fail to account for the loss and degradation of wildlife habitats due to resource and energy development outside of the United States. Globally, over 160,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy are consumed annually and more than 60% of this energy is generated from CO2 producing fossil fuels. The world’s population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and global energy consumption is expected to increase by 50% within the same timeframe.
Asteroid mining is the process of retrieving minerals and other materials from asteroids. This process would involve the use of light weight solar powered machinery to excavate material from the asteroid; due to the lack of gravity a large canopy will be used to collect the material. Once harvested, these materials can be used for a variety of purposes, including construction, manufacturing, and fuel, both on earth and in space for future missions. NASA’s Psyche mission, scheduled to blast off the summer of 2022, will travel to 16 Psyche, a proto planet asteroid approximately 227 kilometers in size with an estimated worth of $10,000 quadrillion, more than the current global economy. More importantly is that 16 Psyche, and numerous other asteroids like it, are thought to contain enough iron, nickel, and cobalt to exceed Earth’s reserves multiple time over.
Space-Based Solar Power
In another vein, space-based solar power (SBSP) is the process of collecting solar power in space typically using large mirrors to reflect light onto solar panels which convert it to electricity. From there, the energy is then beamed back to earth utilizing laser technology to a receiving power station. The energy potential of SBSP is immense as everyday over 1.74 x 1017 watts of energy, (i.e.: 174,000,000,000,000,000) strike the earth and this energy is almost entirely unutilized. Current solar panel technology converts solar to electrical energy at an approximate 20% efficiency. This means that regardless of how many solar panels are active on earth, only about 10% of the total wattage can be converted into electricity because on earth half of the collection time is lost to night or poor weather conditions. Space-based solar avoids this problem entirely due to the benefit of being able to receive continuous sunlight.
While asteroid mining and SBSP are still in early stages, preparations have already begun. As it stands, all outer space activity is foremost governed by the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Outer Space Treaty), which was adopted by United Nations General Assembly and entered into effect in 1967. The principal tenants of the Outer Space Treaty are as follows:
The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
More recently, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act provided clarity as to the property rights retained once space materials are brough back to earth. The act directs the president to facilitate and encourage the commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by U.S. citizens. Most important however, the act establishes that “[a] United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained.”
Impacts to Land & Wildlife
Like all things, with great potential comes great cost. While the export of mining and energy development into outer space has the potential to have tremendous benefits for wildlife here on earth, the transition to space-based energy and resource development requires several developments that are less friendly to wildlife. An example of this is the stark increase in the number of space ports that are required to develop sustainable space-based energy and resource production. As of April 2022, there are twenty-eight active space ports globally, with another twelve space port developments proposed throughout the United States. Two of these proposals, Spaceport at Oscoda-Wursmith horizontal Launch Facility and Spaceport at Loma Farms Vertical Launch Facility are both located in Michigan.
Proposed in part due to its proximity to large bodies of water, the Spaceport at Loma Farms demonstrates the tradeoffs that are required for a space based sustainable future. The footprint of the proposed Loma Farms launch site would require that 45 acres or more of forest on a peninsula jutting into Lake Superior to be clear cut. The launch site, located near networks of hiking trails, nature preserves and the historical Granot Loma would be constructed on fragile wetlands and hydric soil within 500 feet of the lakeshore. Even after successful launches, rocket nose cones, 1st. and 2nd. stage rocket boosters, and large battery packs coated in rocket propellant will fall into the lake and/or onto the ground, causing both hazard and pollution below. Another concern is the effect of noise and vibration caused by rocket launches on nearby animals and their habitats. However, chief among all these concerns is the potential for aborted or failed launches to crash into Lake Superior or the surrounding area causing severe pollution and posing potential safety hazards to wildlife in the area.
To effectively assess the potential of asteroid mining and SBSP the associated risks must be evaluated in light of the potential benefits. Here, the threat posed by aborted launches and the clearcutting of land are substantially outweighed by the possibility of providing sustainable and affordable energy while simultaneously promoting the development of reclaimed wildlife habitats around the world. The risks of wildlife habitat loss and destruction posed by traditional terrestrial energy development projects are far greater than those associated with space-based endeavors. By utilizing space as the primary supplier of earth’s energy and resource needs, millions of acres of currently occupied land can once again be made available to wildlife as forests, parries, and other green spaces. In order to ensure a bright future for humanity, wildlife and earth, more sustainable forms of resource and energy development like asteroid mining and SBSP must be pursued.
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